Facebook Head of Design Charlie Sutton: ‘learning is the source of our agency’
As part of our Breakthrough Builders podcast series, our VP of Tech Jesse Purewal chats with Charlie Sutton, Head of Design at Facebook, about why Apple dominates the tablet market (it’s not what you think), why he says it’s important to remember that most of the work he does will end up in a landfill, and what you’re getting wrong when you think about the future of VR.
The vibrant colors of the local rainforest complemented the artistic creations hanging on the walls of Charlie Sutton’s childhood home in Australia. Even while their day jobs drew on left-brained technical energy, Charlie’s parents both found right-brained reprieve in creative pursuits outside of work.
“It was a really natural thing to see people who were doing a job that wasn’t creative but could fully express themselves in art,” Charlie says
Charlie, VP and Head of Design at Facebook, has expressed himself not just in art and design, but in the people, products, and organizations he’s had a hand in building throughout his more than twenty years in tech.
Behind the breakthroughs
A formative career experience in the field of Design Fiction helped Charlie discover a contribution he could make in any environment:
“What really came to the fore when I was in that studio environment is really trying to be a servant to the design process and the people in the studio. Probably that came from just not being as good as they were. I couldn't add a lot of value with my technical skills, but what I could do is be an amplifier for them and to be a servant for the protection that they needed.
“So I became a very fierce protector of the studio and that has stayed with me as well. I'm a real believer that as you become more senior, it becomes servant leadership.”
This focus on looking after and elevating others has become more refined as Charlie has progressed through roles. He describes what he sees as a critical job of the servant leader when it comes to diversity:
“The friction of a different background, of a different way of speaking of a different design mindset is good. And a lot of your art as a leader has to be about making those frictions [on your team] positive. I honestly think those creative and personal frictions, if they're dealt with in the right way, are the secret to building great design communities.”
Amplifying human agency
It’s a bit jolting to hear someone who has spent an adult life in the creative world rhapsodize about the ordinary – but Charlie argues that the mundane is often the secret to creating cutting-edge designs and compelling visions for the future,“design fiction”:
“[The objective] was to construct narratives about alternative futures, to be provocations. But rather than being the shiny rendered views of the future, where everything is clean and there's no broken chairs and there are no cables, it's more interesting and compelling to use the techniques of science fiction and of other narrative fiction to show the future as it really is, which is a bit broken, very mundane, and we take it completely for granted. That is a much more compelling way to tell a story about how technology will evolve in the future.”
Charlie built this focus on the gaps between design and the real world – the gaps where mundanity might show through. This has created a powerful philosophy that forgoes the classic but often superficial user-needs focus in favor of a more co-creative process.
This means intentionally stopping short of what could be provided, in order to give space for users to learn technologies, develop useful skills, and achieve and feel mastery (what Charlie refers to as “peak human agency.”).
Listen to Charlie chat with our Chief Industry Advisor, Tech, Media & Telecom, Jesse Purewal in a recent episode of our Breakthrough Builders podcast.
Breakthrough Builders is about people whose passions, perspectives, instincts, and ideas fuel some of the world’s most amazing products, brands, and experiences. It’s a tribute to those who have the audacity to imagine – and the persistence to build – breakthroughs.
Listen to the full conversation with Charlie
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